J.W. Morrice: The Canadian artist you may not know about…but should

Before visiting the National Gallery of Canada yesterday, the only artwork I knew by Canadian painter James Wilson Morrice (1865–1924) was a bleak painting of the Québec-Lévis ferry in winter, which I’d had to memorize as the art expert on my school’s Reach for the Top team in the early 1980s. (C’mon, don’t be surprised; you already knew I was exactly that geeky.)

Anyway, I’d never liked the painting—too cold, too drab, too ordinary, I’d thought at 17—and I’d put the Montreal-born artist firmly into the category of “artists I don’t need to learn anything more about.”

Then, yesterday, I went to the media preview of the National Gallery of Canada’s new exhibition, James Wilson Morrice: The A.K. Prakash Collection in Trust to the Nation, which opens on Friday, October 13, and runs until March 18, 2018. And I was very pleasantly surprised.

Morrice painting of a canal in Venice, in tones of red and gold, showing woman in a boat on the canal in front of a house with a tiled roof.

James Wilson Morrice, Canal San Nicolò, Lido, Venice, 1904, oil on canvas, 59 x 81 cm. Gift of A.K. Prakash, J.W. Morrice Collection, 2015, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (46626). Photo: NGC.

Morrice was a very interesting guy, who painted much more engaging pictures of Canada than that boring ferry image. He also travelled extensively—to Paris, Venice, North Africa and the Caribbean, among other spots—and captured beautiful images of sun-drenched cafés and tropical gardens. He was one of Canada’s official war artists during the First World War. He was buddies with Matisse and spoken of in the same breath as Whistler.

“After the death of Whistler, Morrice is the most important North American artist,” exhibition curator Katerina Atanassova noted during the media tour.

Woman in long white dress strolling under fall trees in Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, painted by J.W. Morrice.

James Wilson Morrice, Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, c. 1905, oil on canvas, 73 x 60.5 cm. Gift of A.K. Prakash, J.W. Morrice Collection, 2015, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (46625). Photo: NGC.

For those who think Canadian art in the early 20th century starts and ends with the Group of Seven, this is a bit of a revelation. “His legacy at home has no comparison,” Atanassova said. “His art teaches us how to see….That is not a minor legacy to contend with.” While the Group of Seven are mainly associated with huge, rugged landscapes, Morrice drew viewers’ attention to smaller, more intimate scenes: people watching sailboats, a woman strolling in a Paris park, a horse waiting patiently in the snow outside a Montreal mansion. Many of the works are quite small and demand attention, focus and consideration.

Horse and sleigh in winter, in front of pink house on Redpath Street in Montreal, early 1900s, painted by J.W. Morrice.

James Wilson Morrice, Winter, Montreal (The Pink House), c. 1905-1907, oil on canvas, 61.3 x 50 cm. Gift of A.K. Prakash, J.W. Morrice Collection, 2015, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (46624). Photo: NGC.

Long story short: Go see this exhibition. It’s a chronological display of 49 of his works recently donated to the museum by A.K. Prakash, a Canadian philanthropist and collector who has had a decades-long interest in the artist’s work. “My relationship with Morrice and his work is that of a lover and a beloved,” said Prakash, in a quote emblazoned on one of the exhibition’s walls. “It has never been didactic, or scientific or analytical. It has been a magnificent obsession that I have pursued with reckless abandon.”

People watching sailboats with big white sails, painted by J.W. Morrice.

James Wilson Morrice, The Regatta, c. 1902-1907, oil on panel, 23.4 x 32.8 cm. Gift of A.K. Prakash, J.W. Morrice Collection, 2015, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (46630). Photo: NGC.

NOTE: If you go on Saturday, October 14, you can take a guided tour of the exhibition with Atanassova and other Morrice experts at 11am and 1pm. Tours are free with gallery admission, and will be conducted in English with a bilingual question period.

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